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Billy Hamilton and Stealing 100 Bases

Because he is a man who hates joy, Walt Jocketty said yesterday that Billy Hamilton would “probably not” be called up to the majors in September, as the Reds put the finishing touches on a first-place campaign. (Hamilton has been assigned to the Peoria Javelinas of the Arizona Fall League.) But you never know — as Lloyd Christmas might say, there’s a chance — so I think it’s still worth writing about Sliding Billy, the man who could reach the century mark in steals for the first time in a quarter-century.

Hamilton has stolen 154 bases in 127 games in the minors this year, in High-A and Double-A, breaking Vince Coleman‘s minor league stolen base record. Hamilton also stole 103 in 135 games in Single-A last year. If Billy played 150 games in the majors, the odds are awfully good that he could steal 100 bases, which no one has done since Coleman in 1987. Hell, Mike Podhorzer estimated that he could steal 100 bases as a pinchrunner next year.

Only four men have stolen 100 bases ever, and you probably know their names. Eight 100-steal seasons occurred between the years 1962 and 1987, and none before or since. Maury Wills stole 104 bases in 1962, setting the all-time single-season record, breaking Ty Cobb‘s modern baseball record of 96 steals in 1915, which had stood for 47 years.* Lou Brock upped the ante in 1974, with 118, which is still the second-most of all time. Then, of course, six of the eight 100-steal seasons occurred between 1980 and 1987, with Rickey Henderson on the Billyball Athletics and Vince Coleman on the Whiteyball Cardinals.

* Ty Cobb didn’t hold the all-time record, exactly, and technically, nor does Henderson Brock. It would actually be Hugh Nicol, who is credited with 138 steals in 125 games for the 1887 Cincinnati Red Stockings of the American Association, the predecessor to the modern Reds, Billy Hamilton’s club. I wrote about those Red Stockings in my Opening Day column: they were banned from the National League because the Reds wanted to sell beer at the ballpark. They were finally readmitted to the NL in 1890. Anyway, a lot of people stole 100 bases in 1887, according to Retrosheet: in addition to Nicol, there was Arlie Latham, Jim Fogarty, Pete Browning, future Players’ League founder Monte Ward, and future White Sox owner Charlie Comiskey. Two other players stole 100 bases before 1900. One of them was Tom Brown. The other, of course, was the original Sliding Billy Hamilton, who did it four times — and that is also a record.

Baseball has changed a lot since the 1980s, of course. In stealing 100 bases, Maury Wills established the primacy of the steal by breaking a record that had lasted even longer than the home run record that Roger Maris smashed the year before. And the speedy shortstop got value from his legs during a decade when offense was down across the major leagues.

Despite the fact that his offensive stats appear slightly worse than Coleman’s — Coleman had a career .320 wOBA, 97 wRC+, and 28 career homers; Wills had a .308 wOBA, 95 wRC+, and 20 career homers — Wills had a much better career, about 30 wins better. That’s partly because of the positional adjustment: Wills was an average defensive shortstop and Coleman was a slightly below-average left fielder. But that’s also because the replacement adjustment since the offensive level in Coleman’s era was a fair bit higher than it was in Wills’ era. Wills played from 1959 to 1972, when the major league average was 4.04 runs a game; Coleman played from 1985 to 1997, when the major league average was 4.52 runs a game.

Indeed, Wills’ career would be a very good outcome for Hamilton. Wills was an average defensive shortstop who managed a 40-WAR career and firm enshrinement in the Hall of the Very Good; he’s also probably the greatest major leaguer to hail from Washington, DC. He didn’t really have any power and didn’t really walk. His only two really remarkable talents were his ability to make contact — he had a career 8.2 percent strikeout rate — and his basestealing ability. Wills’ contact rate is the main thing that separates him from Hamilton, who has struck out in more than 20 percent of his minor league plate appearances.

Coleman’s career is another possible outcome, Mike Newman wrote two weeks ago. Coleman managed around 13 WAR in parts of 13 seasons. The typical Coleman season was above replacement-level but below league-average; he was exciting to watch but no more than “a useful player,” as John Sickels writes, predicting that Coleman’s career is essentially Hamilton’s floor.

Lou Brock and Rickey Henderson are less likely outcomes, unless Hamilton flashes power at the major league level. Brock finished with 149 homers, and he is one of only four members of the 100-800 club of players with 100 homers and 800 steals: Lou Brock, Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines, and Ty Cobb. Brock had an ISO of .118, more than twice the .050 that Wills posted, and Henderson’s ISO was .140. Hamilton’s career minor league ISO is .101, and his ability to keep that up will be strongly related to his ability to turn singles into doubles and doubles into triples at the major league level.

But Wills and Coleman demonstrate that Hamilton could have a long, successful career even if he does no such thing. One thing is for sure: he’s gonna be a whole lot of fun to watch.